Cape Town – A less-than-thrilling Test roster for the next year or so carries certain blessings for South Africa as the restored, top-ranked team in the world seeks to only strengthen its armoury.
The Proteas’ agenda in the next 15 months sees them in action solely against minnows of the five-day landscape: ninth-ranked Zimbabwe (away), eighth-placed West Indies at home this summer and then another trip to the Subcontinent next year to tackle Bangladesh, still bringing up the rear on the ICC ladder in 10th.
It is not the ideal way for Hashim Amla’s side, heartened by their commendable 1-0 triumph in Sri Lanka, to try to hold onto the prime real estate, because they will be heavily tipped to prevail in all three series (though the Zimbabwe game in Harare from August 9-13 is a mere once-off) and the rankings weighting in each instance will be low as a result.
In the meantime, it is perhaps no coincidence that the “Big Three” powers under the scandalous new dispensation for global cricket – India, England and Australia – will see quite generous activity among each other.
The Proteas, in fairness, will return to more attractive, likelier strength-versus-strength fare in October 2015 when they visit India for three Tests (all going swimmingly on the bilateral front, of course) and then host England in our 2015/16 season for an increasingly rare “treat” of four encounters.
It is also true that for several months ahead, the one-day international game will elevate increasingly in importance ahead of February’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, and South Africa do have a healthy diet of series and tournaments on that front.
The one advantage of the Proteas’ unglamorous Test programme – at least on paper -- until late next year is that not only will some of their blue-chip players be able to potentially fill their boots statistically against weaker foes, but an outstanding opportunity exists to filter in further young guns and let them bed down, if all goes well, against these weaker opponents.
Generally speaking, the Test team is a reasonably tight and settled unit, and if the departures in quick succession of such iconic figures as Jacques Kallis and Graeme Smith looked like causing some angst in the short term, the acclimatisation thus far of the likes of Dean Elgar and Quinton de Kock gathers oomph quite nicely as speedy compensation.
But two near-glaring areas of continuing weakness resurfaced in Sri Lanka, despite the heroic cling-on in Colombo to secure the series spoils in a tight finish.
Alviro Petersen is now in a situation where even his reserve batteries have run dangerously low – many would say out – as one of the opening batsmen.
He failed to capitalise on fair starts in Galle and flopped twice (two runs over two knocks) in Colombo for a series return of 68 runs at 17.00, something that dragged his already iffy Test average down further to 35.60 after as many as 32 opportunities in the national kit.
There have been no centuries and only three of the half-measure variety in his last 21 innings for the Proteas.
Under the circumstances, and although he has been retained in an unaltered squad for the Zimbabwe clash, is there really any point in Petersen getting another opportunity to atone on a sun-baked Harare deck against a pop-gun attack and only use up another of his nine lives, as it were, in Test cricket?
Instead the Proteas should probably grab the opportunity to try out Cape Cobras left-hander Stiaan van Zyl in a reasonably un-stressful environment: the 26-year-old has patiently cut his teeth in domestic first-class cricket for some eight years, averaging a touch under 45, and the textbook tightness of his technique and patience at the crease are considered particular strong points.
Several years ago, after a day’s play in the former SuperSport Series cricket, this writer recalls former Proteas all-rounder and broadly knowledgeable cricketer Justin Kemp strongly enthusing that a “leftie Kallis” may have been unearthed – no minor valuation, you would think?
Just as precariously placed now, alas, is eccentric leg-spinner Imran Tahir, who I still swear was bedevilled by bad luck (series haul just four, at an admittedly horrible-looking 84.00) in the wickets column in Sri Lanka.
But if ill-fortune did hamper him on the scalps front, it cannot be denied that his propensity to bowl too many half-trackers and full tosses didn’t show nearly enough signs of being eliminated there.
Again, the five-day (or will it even go that far?) southern African “derby” in a couple of weeks’ time might be the perfect chance to see what Dane Piedt, the Newlands-based off-spinner, can bring by way of both wizardry and control ...
Looming Test fixtures for top-ranked SA:
August 9-13: v Zimbabwe, Harare
December 17-21: v West Indies, Centurion
December 26-30: v West Indies, Port Elizabeth
January 2-6: v West Indies, Cape Town
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